No matter how you feel about Fifty Shades of Grey, one must admit it has opened up our national conversation about sexuality. By now, you’d have to be living under a rock if you haven’t at least heard of the E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, let alone not read the trilogy.
Fifty Shades is Twilight for the “Soccer Mom” set — and it's just as poorly written — yet women can’t get enough of it. In fact, no one can.
Sex clubs, sex shops and even New York’s Museum of Sex have had Fifty Shades themed events. A cottage industry of vanilla-friendly BDSM seminars and ladies' nights have popped up faster than you can say “Yes, Sir. May I have another?”
Dateline, Primetime, Nightline — all the news shows have covered it since it’s blockbuster release in 2011, including the dependably milquetoast morning shows. And back in 2011, even Psychology Today and People Magazine, two publications that couldn’t be more different, published articles about the Fifty Shades phenomenon. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about Fifty Shades.
Not only did the E.L. James blockbuster then birth a movie franchise, but it continues to inspire merchandise, news articles, events and sex toys. Even the one of the bastions of conservative family ideals, Target, now sells Fifty Shades of Grey sex toys.
Erotica isn’t anything new and neither is BDSM, so how and why did a poorly written romance novel that was originally self-published as a fan-fiction e-book capture the imagination and sex drive of huge numbers of American women?
I have a few ideas I believe explain why this particular book resonates with so many women. Here are three of them:
1. It's the economy, stupid.
Timing. My feeling has always been that under times of socio-economic stress or crisis people tend to move inward and reflect on what they really have in life — what they can call their own. Taking a personal inventory and whittling one's needs down to the basics illuminates within us what we really care about, what we do have control over and which things add quality to our lives.
In times of economic unreliability, we are forced to define what it is that really makes us happy and what we really need so we can pare down the extraneous trappings of a life distracted by panaceas of success. Without the sparkly diversion of “things” we thought we wanted or needed, discovering that there is nothing more “our own” than our bodies and sexuality can change how we look at sex forever.
Sex. If we’re not doing it, we’re thinking about doing it, because let’s face it — it’s fun, it’s free and it feels good.
To paraphrase John Mayer, our bodies “are a wonderland." A wonderland of sensations, feelings, and hormones that can give us great pleasure.
What could feel more exciting and enticing than a semi-subversive roll-in-the-hay with your neighbor? Or, letting go of your Type-A personality and allowing someone else call the shots in bed? Maybe the scintillating thought of sharing a surreptitious touch with a stranger on a train puts a little spring in your step or devilish grin on your face.
Our sexual desires are inherent, and for some, might not yet have been uncovered to their fullest potential. Feeling free to indulge in our carnal desires is the gateway to exploring our sexual selves or at least choosing whether or not we will indulge that part of our nature.
During a recession, there are few things we feel we have control of and even fewer that have the emotional and physical potential to bring us a respite from the stressors and the financial constraints of seeking out a living.
Fifty Shades of Grey arrived at a time of economic upheaval. It’s no accident that it garnered initial success via word of mouth as a free online publication among mostly hetero, cis women in search of distraction from the hamster wheel of daily life. In the face of joblessness, foreclosures, war and waning availability of affordable healthcare, this book became a must-read.
Easy and inexpensive escapism into a world of passion, lust, and romance. As J. Lo says, “Love don’t cost a thing,” And that is precisely the appeal of a Rabelaisian fantasy like Fifty Shades of Grey.
2. We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.
For far too long in western culture, women’s sexuality has been, at the very least, marginalized and, at the most extreme, vilified.
In modern society, women are not portrayed as wanting sex. In fact, if you grew up at all aware of the women’s movement of the 1960's and 1970's, you might’ve been led to believe that "sexual freedom" for a woman only means she has the right to say “no.”
However, as a woman and a feminist, I have benefited as well from the freedom of choice to say “yes” to control over my own sexuality, “yes” to how I choose to express it and “yes” to sexual pleasure.
It seems Fifty Shades has been the gateway to these benefits for women who may have felt stultified sexually, finally giving them permission to explore an enjoyable sex life.
Nature dictates that we are all sexual and sensual beings. It’s beginning to dawn on the modern woman that sexual pleasure isn’t only acceptable for men, but is just acceptable for women. Because of the popularity and the subsequent mainstream media frenzy around Fifty Shades of Grey, women feel more empowered to talk about what sexual pleasure means to them, regardless of whether they are or are not into “BDSM.”
This is a huge step in the evolution of female sexual acceptance where shame had shrouded it for centuries. The public acceptance of Fifty Shades of Grey allows women to accept and seek out sexual pleasure as they begin to feel as free to explore their sexual urges as men have been doing since time immemorial.
It stands to reason that women who find sexual liberation in E.L. James books may possibly be more open to teaching their daughters that sex — and the pleasure we derive from it — is healthy and that their right to express their sexuality verbally and/or physically is nothing to be ashamed of.
Without trying to, Fifty Shades of Grey has taken away a bit of the taboo around sexuality for a certain segment of the female population.
Women who normally didn’t discuss “such things” are now sharing with each other the titillation and thrill they get from reading modern erotica. This book's popularity has sparked discussions and freed a great many women from the bad kind of ties that bind.
3. This phenomenon is not about BDSM. It's about sexual self-discovery.
The heroine, smart yet inexperienced, yields to her feelings and follows Mr. Grey on a titillating sexual adventure. She’s not an idiot. She recognizes how extreme and foreign her situation with Mr. Grey is and she struggles with it. She feeds her desires and discovers in the process what she does and does not like about this specific kind of sex.
Experimenting with our turn-ons and turn-offs is an essential part of discovering what kind of sex we like best in order to have a satisfying sex life.
After all, how do we know what we like if we don’t even know what we don’t like?
We try out what makes us curious in other parts of our lives, like trying new foods or choosing a type of exercise we enjoy (or, at least, that we don’t hate). Why should it be any different with sex?
E.L. James has given us a sort of heroine’s journey of sexual self-discovery — and we see ourselves in that journey. It’s empowering. Even if we don’t identify with the characters in the book, we want to. We feel the pull of sexual pleasure.
For some of us, we’ve masked the seduction of sexual adventure and enjoyment, putting it on the back-burner in order to build a career, take care of a family member or build our own family. Because of this, the tug of this sexual pilgrimage may come later in life, if we allow it to come at all.
Regardless of when we feel compelled to go on a journey of sexual discovery, we all must.
We all deserve to experience passion, discover what leads us to it, and recognize the many different roads to take and ways to travel there. Fifty Shades of Grey illuminates just one of those paths and ignites in the reader a contemplation of one’s own passage through the hallowed halls of our sexuality.
A singular voice in the sexual health community and a body acceptance thought-leader, Elle Chase is a sought after sex education/sexuality expert for such outlets as TODAY SHOW on NBC, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post, Men’s Health and Buzzfeed. Chase is also the creator of the award-winning feminist sensual images blog LadyCheeky (warning: NSFW). Her much anticipated first book, “Curvy Girl Sex: 101 Body-Positive Positions to Empower Your Sex Life,” is available now.
This article was originally published at Smut for Smarties. Reprinted with permission from the author.